SUZUKA – World champion Lewis Hamilton roared to pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix as Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel slumped to ninth after a horror showing in Saturday’s qualifying.
Lewis, who leads Vettel by 50 points with five races left this season, led a Mercedes front-row lock-out and will start as the hot favourite to tighten his stranglehold on the Formula One championship in Sunday’s race at Suzuka.
The Briton’s record-extending 80th career pole never looked in doubt after his rampant form in completing a clean sweep of free practice earlier in the day.
“I can’t believe I have 80 poles,” said Hamilton, who has won five of the last six races.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d get 80. When it comes to being under pressure and making the right decisions, that’s why we are the best team in the world.”
Ferrari’s decision to begin Q3 on intermediate tyres instead of supersofts backfired spectacularly as the rain they expected held off just long enough for Hamilton to set a fastest lap of one minute, 27.760 seconds – three-tenths quicker than teammate Valtteri Bottas.
Vettel skidded off twice in his desperation to set a time, and his starting position will be his lowest in a season which began so brightly, but looks like ending in bitter disappointment.
“This is not the position we deserve to be in,” insisted the German, who realistically needs victory to keep alive his fading hopes of pipping Hamilton to a fifth world title.
“I think we have better pace than ninth, so I’m not too worried.”
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen qualified third, alongside Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen on the second row.
Romain Grosjean steered his Haas to fifth ahead of Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly, who secured sixth and seventh on the grid for Toro Rosso at the home of their engine suppliers Honda.
Meanwhile, there were more qualifying woes for Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who climbed out of his car and yelled an expletive into his helmet after suffering a mechanical breakdown.
“I just can’t catch a break,” said the Australian. “I’ll try to do what I can, but it’s pretty painful at the moment.”
The Force Indias of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez qualified above and below Vettel to complete the top 10.
Hamilton controversially took his eighth chequered flag of the season at Sochi last weekend – his fifth win in the last six races – after Mercedes ordered Bottas to give up the lead.
But he has dominated in Suzuka and a fifth victory in Japan would put him on course to clinch the title with races to spare.